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McKee Botanical Garden is now restored and open!
Vero Beach is located 90 miles north of Palm Beach. The gardens are on U.S.1 just south of Indian River Boulevard. For garden hours, events, and tour information visit the Official Website: http://www.mckeegarden.org/

Restoring McKee Botanical Garden Vero Beach, Florida   By Leigh M. Fulghum

Town legend has it that Waldo Sexton, nowadays a spirit and culture-hero of Vero Beach, Florida, mischievously haunts locations where modern renovation replaces true driftwood construction. His oceanfront restaurant, the The Ocean Grill and famous Driftwood Inn are still the height of Vero chic. Yet despite  all that has been done to preserve the land and the legend, people of Vero agree that things haven't been quite the same since the days of the jungle gardens...

From a rare 1940's Mckee postcard1940s McKee Jungle Gardens

"Here you will find the largest variety of water lilies in the U.S., deep blue and fairy  pink, golden and white and blood-red beauties that bloom night and day the whole year round. Here are rare plants, shrubs and trees, robust towering palms, brightly blooming shrubs, a dense palm and oak forest, overhanging live oak trees filled with orchids and air plants."

The Garden Opened at Last...

The new plan was designed by the firm of Wallace, Roberts and Todd. The buildings, orchid and waterlily collections were restored. A new set of Spanish iron bells, and bits and pieces of authentic Sexton decor seem to be making their way home to the jungle.

he story begins in 1929 when two speculators purchased an 80-acre hammock of live oak, cabbage palm and pine along the Indian River in Vero Beach, with the idea of planting orange groves. While getting the lay of the land, they decided it was too beautiful to destroy. Instead they planned for tropical plants, exotic animals, bathing beauties, music and good times.
No ordinary highway enterprise, the original McKee Jungle Gardensopened its gates to the public in 1932, becoming famous not only as Florida's first public garden, but as one of Florida's most successful early tourist attractions.

Waldo Sexton's architectural fantasies built of oddities and beach salvage accented an important collection of orchids and waterlilies from around the world procured by industrialist/orchidologist Arthur McKee. Business in the Garden boomed, as did good times after-hours in the jungle. Saturday night men-only steak cookouts in The Spanish Kitchen and rounds of cocktails in the The Hall of Giants were a regular event. But on Sundays Sexton repented and extended his hospitality to the local African-American congregation for Gospel Sings and Baptisms in the glorious lilypond.

But The 1970's spelled disaster for many of Florida's Atlantic Coast businesses when tourism shifted to newer, more elaborate attractions in the center of the state. After too many years without its former crowds, McKee Jungle Gardens closed in 1976. The gates were sold to a sentimental neighbor and  the land, a wasting asset as a garden, went for a million dollars to a happy developer. A Young Lady at McKee in the 1960's

The most magnificent portion of the jungle, the Indian River frontage, was of course the first parcel to be developed, but as time went on a substantial part of the land lay fallow. The former entrance to McKee Jungle Gardens fronting U.S.1 was in the unused portion, so the Hall of Giants, the Spanish Kitchen, and The Stone Bridge were spared. Sexton's edifices had been well-looted, though, of  iron bells from Spain, furnishings, and his fabled artifacts. McKee's fabulous plant collection for the most part had disappeared.

Citizens of Indian River County, Florida formed the Indian River Land Trust to, among other projects, restore McKee's remnant of landscape architecture. Because the memory of a unique era in Florida's past is so strongly associated with the garden, enthusiasm ran high for the project. An initial 2.1 million dollars was raised to purchase what was left of the original McKee Jungle Gardens, along with another 80 acres of adjacent wetlands.

Hence two gents waiting out the Great Depression in Vero Beach, Florida, paved the way for McKee Botanical Garden, today listed in The National Register of Historic Places. Vero Beach has acquired an enduring mythology intricately wound into its present day economy, and an excellent opportunity for preservation and beautification has presented itself to citizens and organizations like The Garden Conservancy.

Take an Image Tour
1.The Individualist and the Industrialist
2. Mr. Arthur McKee
3. Dr. David Fairburn
4. The Cathedral of Palms
5. Inside the Jungle Then
6. The Stone Bridge
7. Gospel Sings and Baptisms
8. The Petting Zoo
9. The Stump
10. The Hall of Giants
11. The Spanish Kitchen
12. The Sixties
13. Bathing Beauties
14. Inside the Jungle Now 
15. The Artesian Well
The end

Watch Our Garden Grow

McKee Botanical Garden

350 US Highway 1, Vero Beach, FL 32962 Telephone (772) 794-0601
FAX (772) 794-0602
General Information: info@mckeegarden.org
McKee Botanical Garden is a member of the Indian River County Chamber Of Commerce and the Cultural Council of Indian River County.

A Project of the Indian River Land Trust 
Janet Alford, Executive Director mckeegdn@veronet.net;
Official Website: http://www.mckeegarden.org/  

Reference Links

Leonard, M.C.Bob, Florida History Internet Project, Professor of History, Hillsborough Community College, Ybor City Campus.
http://www.indian-river.fl.us/   Indian River County, Florida .
http://www.upenn.edu/gsfa/archives/archives.htm   Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.
http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/lecture18.html   The Crash and the Great Depression, University of Wisconsin.

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